“But you are not funny,” they said. “You cannot even tell a joke.” Getting accepted into the Warner Bros. Writers Television Comedy Workshop floored Karen Janszen’s parents. Science studies from UC Santa Cruz, Harvard and MIT may not have spelled out “comedy,” but this was an exceptional case. “I am not a joke teller,” said Janszen, the longtime screenwriter known for A Walk to Remember, Dolphin Tale and Mars. “I am a storyteller.”
After moving to Los Angeles to attend the American Film Institute (where she now teaches), Janszen studied animation at Hanna-Barbera, eventually earning herself a spot in the aforementioned comedy workshop. A dramatic script at AFI, however, led to a prestigious Chesterfield fellowship award – overseen by Steven Spielberg – and was made into a feature film starring Kevin Bacon and Evan Rachel Wood. The success of Digging to China led to further writing projects, from Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home and The MatchMaker to a television mini-series, From the Earth to the Moon.
In 1999, Janszen began adapting Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novel A Walk to Remember for the big screen. Pregnant at the time, she had to make “a million decisions” about the book – what to keep, what to lose, what to change and what to invent. “People always judge how faithful a film is to its source,” Janszen recalled. “I believe you owe it to a book and a book’s author to be faithful. However, there are different shades of faithful and to what. There’s faithfulness to the story, its premise, its themes, a character, the story world, the dialogue, the author’s voice, the ending.”
Her goal was to write a feature that both honored Sparks’ original vision and told a compelling stand-alone story. And she did exactly that. “I remember respecting the source material, feeling a responsibility to it, knowing it inside and out – and then trying to write a film that honored it while not necessarily re-creating it exactly for the screen.” Her recreation came to life with director Adam Shankman and lead actors Shane West and Mandy Moore (in their respective roles of rebellious Landon Carter and reserved Jamie Sullivan) and the beloved film grossed $41 million, domestically.
Fifteen years later, her adaptation process has not changed – except maybe the source material. Having collaborated with filmmakers like Ron Howard and Tom Hanks to production companies Miramax and The Weinstein Company, she still finds that women drama writers can be pigeonholed into writing for YA, teen girls, children and animals (to name a few). “I’ve loved doing them,” she says, after adapting family films like Duma and Dolphin Tale. “My reps would call it my brand, but my mother, a feminist who taught me well, would have called it a ‘screenwriter’s pink collar ghetto.’”
Now the producer and writer of National Geographic’s television series Mars, Janszen (a self-described science geek) has also sold television pilots, including a medical show, a musical drama and a supernatural crime series. “If you want other people to see you differently, you must first see yourself differently.” Still, she is stamped with a family-friendly brand, despite writing or rewriting to thrillers, historical epics and animated comedies that went uncredited or unproduced.
“Expect it,” she says, simply, regarding the gender bias in Hollywood, a bias that has affected her directly. She’s learned to work harder, work smarter and advises aspiring female filmmakers to over-prepare. “Men can get away with winging it. Women can’t,” she says. “Write something so personal and so deeply felt; only you can tell your story. Then present yourself with confidence and present your project with authority and passion. If you want to direct, write a great script and then refuse to sell it unless you can direct it.”
Now focusing on contemporary dramas, including The Butterfly Lovers, an animated Chinese feminist folk tale, Janszen finds time to impart her wisdom onto her students at the American Film Institute. She stresses the importance of outlining, knowing the ending and being a “master storyteller,” one who can tell the difference between a coherent, complex and captivating story and one that doesn’t have a movie-sized premise, spark of life or originality. “Often the difference is only a great character.”
Karen Janszen lives in Los Angeles and is represented by The Gersh Agency.
© Brigid K. Presecky (5/3/17) FF2 Media
Photos: A Walk to Remember; Karen Janszen at the premiere of Dolphin Tale; Mars
Photo Credits: Warner Bros. Entertainment/Alcon Film Fund LLC/National Geographic